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Army vet sets out to lower ‘horrendous’ rates of veteran suicides

Veteran suicide rates are still higher than the rest of the population. (U.S. Army Reserve/Released)

After losing several “battle buddies” to suicide and considering the same action herself, Army veteran Jessica Ruyts decided she needed to do something to help others like her who’d worn their country’s uniform.

She founded The Ruyts Foundation of Veteran Suicide Prevention to help veterans throughout Virginia by raising awareness of issues that she says go unnoticed. The group plans to help veterans with mental-health counseling and medications and is planning its first fundraiser, a “22K to End Veteran Suicide,” on March 28.

The event also includes a 2-miler for children and a 6K for children and adults, followed by a concert.

A 22K is slightly longer than a half-marathon, but the “22” correlates with a long-touted statistic about the number of veterans who die daily by suicide. Some reports have suggested the number was taken out of context while others say it refers to suicides by both veterans and active-duty service members.

The most recent report published by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2016 analyzed 55 million veterans’ records from 1979 to 2014 and concluded an average of 20 veterans had died from suicide per day.

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Ruyts wonders if the statistics aren’t even higher. She cites a figure offered in mid-February by Shadows Behind the Badge, a nonprofit that offers free, confidential telehealth counseling for first responders, active duty military and veterans with post traumatic stress syndrome or depression. Its Facebook page stated it had verified 1,092 suicides among active-duty service members or veterans for the first seven weeks of this year.

“It’s really horrendous,” she said.

The 30-year-old Spotsylvania County resident almost became a statistic.

In 2015, she finished eight years in the military. Flashbacks of her service in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom, and the regular nightmares about her experiences as an Army medic had become more than she could handle, and she set her mind on ending her life.

Ruyts, who’s from Kentucky, headed toward a VA hospital in Nashville and told people there, upon arrival, that she wanted to kill herself.

Because she wasn’t actively doing herself harm, she was told the VA couldn’t do anything for her at the moment, and she needed to make an appointment.

She was so infuriated, she sought help elsewhere and found a community hospital worker in Kentucky who made sure Ruyts had “a safe place” until she could get into counseling. The therapy and medication stabilized her.

“It helped me learn there’s other ways to cope besides dying by suicide,” she said.

Ruyts and her sister-in-law, Codi Ruyts, who also comes from a large family of military members, want to pass along the same help to others. So do those involved with the March 28 event.

The performers, like many of those who’ve volunteered to help, “have a heart for the cause,” Codi Ruyts said. The event will be held at the Dominion Raceway and Entertainment in Spotsylvania County. The 22K and 6K start at 7 a.m., followed by the 2-miler at 8 a.m. The registration fee is $25 to $75 per person, depending on the event.

Online registration ends on March 25, but participants can register in person for an additional $5. Registration includes a shirt, medal and ticket for the concert, which runs from the end of the races until noon.

After the running events, which will be held on the road course, there will be a concert in the Groove Music Hall, which includes performers Zye Young, Soldier Hard, J-Deuce and Chris Cash. Tickets are available online at eventbrite.com.

The events are sponsored by the foundation and J&Z’s Boutique, a clothing store in downtown Fredericksburg operated by Ruyts and her husband, Zachary, a specialist in the Army Reserves.

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